Monday, April 25, 2016

A Little Girl As My Guide

I fell in love with Astronomy after watching Carl Sagan's COSMOS series. My mom would rent them from the library for me when I was seven or eight years old. I can recall seeing Dr. Sagan working with the Voyager team, going over images taken by the satellite and thinking "That's what I want to do. I want to be a part of a team pushing the boundaries of knowledge." The way astronomers study the mysteries of space fascinated that little girl. They can't touch anything out there. They can't change it and see what happens. All they can do is watch. Now that little girl is an astronomer, and she's still fascinated by the field, but she isn't part of a research team. My path did not lead her there. That little girl acted as my guide through this whole journey, pushing me forward. I want to thank her for not giving up on me and helping me through the obstacles thrown in my path.

My interest in Astronomy was obvious to my family and friends. I would read random Astronomy books and people bought me space-themed stuff, but I had no real connections to the field. I had no idea what you needed to know to be an astronomer. I figured I would learn it all in college. When applying to college during my senior year of high school I discovered that to study Astronomy I would have to major in Physics. That little girl was so excited to study such a difficult subject so I marked on all my applications that I wanted to study Physics. I received phone calls from many of the schools trying to convince me to choose them. Not because of my SAT scores or my grades, but because I was female. It was very obvious going in that I would be a minority in my courses so I chose a small liberal arts college. Because the classes were smaller, I got a lot of support and attention from my professors. They encouraged me to apply to graduate school to continue studying Astronomy. That little girl was excited to learn more.

A liberal arts education meant I had to take many classes outside my field of study. I did well in all my classes but my knowledge did not prepare me for the Physics GRE which I needed to take for graduate school. I had no idea what to expect going into this test and I didn't study. I got a terrible score, I only did better than 1% of the other exam takers. The rejection letters from graduate programs came in droves and that little girl started to get worried. I emailed one school asking what was weak about my application. The response I received read something like "Your application was not up to the calibre of our institution. Your GRE score was the lowest of all our applicants. Scoff scoff." I had no idea how much weight that test held and I didn't ask any other institutions for feedback. That little girl told me it wasn't necessary since they obviously didn't have anything useful to say.

By some stroke of genius I applied to a Master's program that didn't need Physics GRE scores. I was accepted and had an amazing experience! I had to take a diagnostic exam to evaluate my Physics knowledge. Needless to say, I didn't have much. My confidence was shattered going in but that little girl told me it would be OK because we were going to learn what we needed. I had to retake a bunch of undergraduate level courses but, in the process, I found colleagues from different backgrounds who were in the same situation. I made life-long friends and had an adviser who never let me give up. Even when I broke down in my third year of the program and declared I wasn't cut out for Astronomy he told me to focus on retaking the Physics GRE and to apply to specific Ph.D programs that would accept someone with my abilities. I studied my ass off and did much better on the Physics GRE the third time around. It wasn't Harvard good, but I didn't want to go there. After a total of four years and two rounds of graduate school applications, I got into a Ph.d program with renewed self-confidence. That little girl was ecstatic.

That confidence was not to last. In my first semester of the Ph.D program, I tried to get a head start on research since I already had experience. Half-way into the semester, the adviser I worked with told me I wasn't cut out for a Ph.D program since I couldn't handle coursework, studying for my qualifying exam and research. That little girl told me I was obviously qualified to be there so, despite that blow to my self-esteem, I found a new adviser and passed my qualifying exam on the first try. Over the next four years I agreed to develop a project that would use an instrument my new adviser was building for the SOAR telescope in Chile. I helped obtain funding for building the instrument and created a strategy to use it to study galaxies in compact groups. That little girl was so happy to be working on new and exciting research. Just as we were getting ready to commission the instrument on the telescope, my adviser decided to take a year of leave to work in Australia and left me with the responsibility of getting the instrument up and running in Chile. That little girl wasn't phased at all. We would be just like Carl Sagan, working with a team to build something that would be used to study the universe.

I spent two separate weeks in October and November 2013 working with the day crew at the telescope to get the instrument working so I could finally take some data. It was unsuccessful and my adviser basically said I was screwed. So after crying in the bathroom of the telescope for 10 minutes that little girl helped me back up and I adapted my project to use a different instrument on the same telescope to take my data. I told my dissertation committee the plan and they approved. Shortly after this, I found out I was pregnant with a little girl of my own. Over the next year and a half I had a baby, took some of my data, and worked on my science communication skills. My husband graduated from our program and got a tenure-track position so we bought a house and I finished my last year remotely. While waiting to close on our new home I took the last of my data. Once our daughter started daycare in September I was free to analyse all that data and six months later, I got the go ahead from my adviser to defend in April 2016. In the next two months I wrote my dissertation and successfully defended it.

On top of all that I also applied for more than 20 jobs during this time and wasn't hired by any of them. Instead I used connections through my adviser from my Master's program to meet with astronomers in the area. That led me to a temporary faculty position at a university 20 minutes from our house which I'll start in the fall. I can still do research on my own and will continue to do science outreach in my spare time.

Those last two years went by so fast that I didn’t have time to check in with my little guide. I put that seven year old girl through hell, but she got me through it. Now that it’s over I’ve been spending some time thinking about how that little girl watching COSMOS helped me. We started this journey knowing what we wanted to be and ended up discovering what we needed to be every time we encountered resistance. I am so thankful she was with me through this journey because I couldn't have done it without her.

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